The Lone Ranger review

The Lone Ranger is without doubt one of the weirdest summer tentpole movies to have emerged from a major studio since... um... no, I can’t honestly think of a more misconceived attempt at a blockbuster. The plot finds wandering Comanche Tonto (Depp) fall in with straight-laced district attorney John Reid (played by a loaf of white bread). Reid is returning to his Texas hometown via a railroad being built by ambitious businessman Cole (Wilkinson). Waiting for him are his Texas Ranger brother and the sister-in-law for whom he harbours romantic feelings.

The first meeting of the two men does not suggest a lifelong partnership lies ahead. Tonto is manacled next to outlaw Butch Cavendish (the always reliable Fichtner) for some never explained reason (when asked for what crime he was cuffed he simply replies "Indian") while Reid is travelling in coach with some Presbyterians. The two are thrown together when Butch’s outlaw gang raids the train. This sparks the first of the film’s two action sequences (yes two action sequences... two... in two-and-a-half hours). Despite the best efforts of Tonto (mostly thwarted by Reid’s faffing around) Butch escapes and Reid is deputised into a posse. Things don’t go so well at this point and set in motion events that will expose greed and corruption at the highest levels of society and cause the rigid paleface lawyer to take up arms, don a mask and become The Lone Ranger (eventually: a really loooooooong time after the opening credits and a really short time before the closing ones).

The film has had a troubled history. Originally, Disney baulked at the film's ballooning budget in the wake of the expensive failure of John Carter. A $250 million dollar western lost its appeal, even if it did reunite the producer, director and star of the billion-dollar Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Disney eventually greenlit the project again, after the budget was cut and (allegedly) super producer Bruckheimer agreed to keep a lid on director Verbinski and his notorious ability to make large bonfires out of $100 bills. Clearly this plan worked brilliantly as most reports peg the films eventual budget at... uh... $250 million. All money well spent as the movie has already tanked at the US box office ($74 million after two weeks, ouch). So The Lone Ranger pretty much arrives as a ready plucked and stuffed early Thanksgiving turkey.

How nice it is then to report that the film is actually... wait for it... this is my p-p-p-p-poker face... nah, I can’t keep it up – it’s bloody awful.

It’s time to address the elephant in the room. Depp. He’s a white guy playing a native American, a practice people have quite rightly been criticising Hollywood for since the revisionist westerns of the 1960s began to show the cracks in the theory of manifest destiny. Yet, for some reason, because he's the king of indie cred, Depp – on $20 million a movie, and because he gave an interview once where he mused that he had heard tell that his great, great grandma might (interesting word that, might) have been part Cherokee – feels it's suddenly alright to do this again. Here’s the thing: it ain’t.

Anyway, putting that aside, this is an astonishing movie – and an even more astonishing Disney movie (somewhere Uncle Walt’s head is spinning in a vat of liquid nitrogen). Warner Bros has a reputation for making dark summer movies with Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Well, the bat has nothing on this. The Lone Ranger is a dark, depressing and violent entertainment, but unlike the Nolan films it tries to have it’s cake and eat it by including broad comedy in a way that would, had I not seen Mousehunt, convince me that Verbinski thinks slaughterhouses are the height of slapstick entertainment. This is a movie that shows (largely offscreen) the massacre of a Comanche tribe. The corpses float downriver, where they are grimly observed by Tonto and the Lone Soft Hamburger Roll. Then Verbinski immediately cuts to a comedy horse up a tree with a cowboy hat on! I know, right? Nothing lightens up a scene of ethnic cleansing like a funny horse.

This is just one example. The film also includes: cannibalism, a double decapitation, several threats of rape, wanton murder of Native Americans and Chinese railway workers, and a prostitute with a weaponised false leg. Fun for all the family? I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure a cross between Wiki-wiki-wah-wah-Wild-Wild-West and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is high on the wish list for anyone looking for popcorn entertainment.

Acting wise, this is probably Depp’s most intensely irritating performance to date. Caked in makeup that makes him look like a member of Mayhem, with a dead crow as a hat (none of the actual blink-and-you-will-miss-them Native American actors sport this look), Depp also adopts Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp walk for no sane reason whatsoever. Tonto has a habit of feeding the mummified blackbird that may go down in screen history as the SINGLE MOST ANNOYING METHOD AFFECTATION OF ALL TIME.

Okay, there is an actor playing The Lone Ranger, Armie Hammer. How galling it must be to be playing second fiddle in a movie that bears his character’s title. Hammer is not an actor who has been given an opportunity to show a great deal of range; while I liked him in The Social Network, by following the Angel Delight-bland Mirror Mirror with this, he risks becoming typecast as an English breakfast muffin. Bonham Carter is in the film for all of five minutes, and Wilkinson is picking up a cheque. Only Fichtner puts any real effort in, and his villain is so disfigured and degenerate he would get kicked off the set of Soldier Blue.

Perhaps the best example of the sheer stupid wastefulness of the film comes in the form of some CGI bunnies who appear during a desert sojourn for no good reason whatsoever. Beautifully computer modelled, with superbly rendered fur, these were-bunnies must have cost about a $100 grand in VFX man hours. Did anyone at any point look at the script and ask Verbinski why exactly he needed an inconsequential sequence of $100 grand CGI bunnies? Clearly not, but he liked it so much he has them appear twice.

For western fans, the film doesn’t help itself by constantly referencing the work of Ford and Leone. There is an attack on a ranch that directly references Once Upon A Time in the West, but Verbinski’s overblown Saturday morning serial is not fit to lick the spurs of films like that one. Composer Hans Zimmer gets in on the act by incorporating elements from western scores, particularly faint echoes of Ennio Morricone. Fichtner’s hare-lipped villain evokes the DC comic character Jonah Hex (something the production may have cause to regret as it has attracted protest from a disability rights group). The reference list is long, but unlike Tarantino’s Django Unchained – which was made by a western fan for western fans – The Lone Ranger is a western that isn’t a western aimed at an audience that don’t like westerns.

Ultimately, the film’s constant referencing of the darkest parts of the history of the West feel like so much window dressing, it sits very ill at east with the requirements of action adventure for kiddies. You might argue that this is daring, but actually what it really feels like is very bad taste.

The Lone Ranger at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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